Pope Benedict XVImade a special trip to Istanbul's Blue Mosque in Turkey on Thursday in a move seen as a conciliatory gesture toward Muslims as part of his visit to the predominantly Islamic country.
On the third of a four-day visit to Turkey, the Popebecame the second pope in history to visit a Muslim place of worship.
Mustafa Cagrici, the head cleric of Istanbul,accompanied the pontiffas he toured the 17th century mosque, known as the Blue Mosque because of its famous blue tiles. Before entering the building, Benedict took off his shoes in a show of respect.
The two religious leaderslater stood together, shoulder to shoulder,in a moment ofquiet meditation.
"This visit will help us find together the way of peace for the good of all humanity," the Pope said during the visit.
CBC's Adrienne Arsenault, reporting fromIstanbul, saidthe image of the two men representing two very different faiths but sharing a moment of individual prayer was seen as highly significant.
"It really was considered here as a striking, symbolic moment," she said. "I think it was at that point when people started to realize that he may not have said the words, 'I'm sorry,' but the interpretation here was that he indeed went some way to offer an apology of sorts for the words he uttered in September about Islam."
The Pope sparked controversy two months ago when he quoted a text by a 14th-century Christian emperor, whodescribed the ProphetMuhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman." Vatican officials said thePope was tryingtopoint out that faith is incompatible withviolence, and helater expressed regret for stoking Muslim anger.
Arsenault said the Pope has been well-received in the Turkishmediawhile he visitsimportant religious sites. Commentatorshave saidthe visit will help to create a new understanding between Christians and Muslims.
"They are falling all over themselves in the Turkish media, many of them anyway, to say that this trip went infinitely better than they thought it would. The tone here is actually quite positive at this point," she said.
"We'll see if, in the next day or two, if second thoughts emerge, but at this point, they do seem to be believing that it went better than anyone could have anticipated."
The mosque, which was surrounded by police amid tight security for the Pope, is officially known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque. It is named after the Ottoman sultan, Ahmet I, whowas responsible for its construction.
Vatican spokesmanRev. Federico Lombardi said last week that the Vaticanincludeda visit to the mosqueon the pontiff's itinerary as a "sign of respect" to Muslims.
Earlier Thursday, the Popetoured the Hagia Sophia, a1,500-year-old museumin Istanbul,in a stop thatwas considered to be the most closely watched of his trip.
The museum is of religious importance to Turkey because it was first a Byzantine church, completed in 537,andbecame a mosque in the 1400s after Muslims conquered Constantinople, which later came to be Istanbul. In the 1930s, then president Kemal Ataturkconverted the building into a museum.
Arsenault said any religious gestures by the Pope at the site, such as praying or making the sign of the cross,would have beenseen as offensive by some Muslims.
The museum was surrounded by thousands of police officers, with entire streets blocked off in a bid to prevent any disruption of the visit, Arsenault said.
Also onThursday,the Popeheld a prayer servicewith Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians.
After praying together, the Popesaid the two leaderswould try to mend a rift that has existed for nearly 1,000 years between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches.
"The divisions which exist among Christians are a scandal to the world and an obstacle to the proclamation of the gospel," Pope Benedict was quoted by Reuters as sayingin his homily at the service in St. George Church.
The Pope and the patriarchrepresent two branches of Christianity that went their separate ways in 1054 because ofdifferences in opinion on the role of the papacy.
Arsenault said attempts to heal that rift appear to be successful. The patriarchwas the first person to invite the Pope to Turkey.
The Pope's visit to Turkey — his first trip to a Muslim country since becoming leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics in 2005 —was called one of the riskiest foreign ventures in the modern papacy.
It wasalso hailed as an attempt to heal the divide between the Christian and Muslim worlds, thoughhis remarks about Islamcontinue todraw ire in Turkey. There have been a few isolated protests during the Pope's visit.
On Wednesday, Pope Benedict reached out to the tiny Roman Catholicminority in Turkey by celebrating mass next to a stone house that is believed to be the place where the Virgin Mary spent the final years of her life. The shrine isin the town of Ephesus in western Turkey.
The pontiffalso paid tribute to a Roman Catholic priest who was killed duringMuslim reaction tothe publication in Denmark of caricatures of Muhammad.
Turkey has an estimated 65,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 Roman Catholics, 3,500 Protestants, 2,000 Greek Orthodox and 23,000 Jews. The Christian minority has said it believes it is discriminated against by the Muslim majority of 72 million.